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Archive: November 2004

Into The East

Hey, Japan, I’m headed your way and looking for gigs!

I’ve received official confirmation that I’ll be presenting a half-day tutorial at the Fourteenth International World Wide Web Conference, otherwise known as WWW2005, and also delivering a keynote and participating in a panel at the W4A Workshop at the same conference.  WWW2005 will be held in Chiba, Japan, running from 10 – 14 May 2005.  There will be more details on the Complex Spiral Events page in the next week or so.

So here’s the deal: I’m already committed to travel to Japan,  so this is a rare opportunity for any companies, organizations, or other groups that would like to hire me for training, speaking, or other consulting.  My usual fees include reasonable travel expenses such as hotel room and airfare, and as you might imagine, a plane flight from the eastern United States to Japan is just a tad expensive.  (Try somewhere around $1,250 for economy class and $7,500 for business class.)  However, since I’m going to be there anyway, I’ll waive the airfare expense for any consulting engagements.  That’s a pretty notable savings no matter what airfare class I’ll be flying.

Here’s the flip side: I will need to book my flights before the end of January, in order to make sure I can get good flight arrangements.  That means I’ll need to have settled any agreements to consult (in whatever capacity) by that time.  So if you’re in Japan or know people who are there and interested in standards, spread the word!  This is the first time I’ll ever have been to Japan, and I may not be back again for quite some time.  Any assistance in making the trip more productive will be greatly appreciated.

If you have a suggestion on where I could search for leads, feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me.  If you have a business proposal or wish to seriously discuss how we might work together, please contact me via the inquiry address at Complex SpiralDomo arigato!

Preparing For SES Chicago

Some of you may recall that a while back, I let my mouth run sarcastic in the direction of some SEO experts, a topic conference, and by implication an entire industry… and ended up publicly apologizing for same, when it turned out I’d been, if not libelous, then at the very least grossly unfair.  In the process, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch, the guy who organized the conference I was maligning, floated the idea that I might come speak at one of their conferences.  I indicated that I’d be interested.

As a result, I’ll be appearing on a panel at SES Chicago.  The other two panel members are, as it happens, the very same people I bad-mouthed back in August.  So that ought to be interesting.  More information, and links, are available on the Events page at Complex Spiral Consulting.

So what standards-centric question(s) do you think I should ask of these SEO experts?  The one that’s top of my list is: “Exactly what effect, if any, does semantic markup have on search engine rankings?”  A related question: “How does content ordering affect search engine indexing?”  I’m sure there are others, and I’m happy to be a conduit for asking them of people who should know, and getting the answers back to you.  So ask away—and be polite, please.  I’m not going to be talking to comment spammers, but people who learn the ins and outs of search engine behaviors to help clients get wider exposure of their content.  They’re not too dissimilar from those of us who learn the ins and outs of browser behavior to help clients get their content online in the first place.  I failed to respect that before, and won’t make the same mistake again.

Target’s Backdoor Sale

So how long before this gets turned into a boycott campaign by the high-morals crowd?  Because, after all, Target is clearly promoting a homosexual lifestyle by offering this item.  (And just in case they’ve deleted it by the time you read this, here’s a screenshot for your delectation.)

A few quick observations:

  • Only $35.96!  And that’s 10% off!  Plus you qualify for free shipping!
  • The downside, so to speak, is that it won’t be available for another 4-8 weeks.
  • At least it’s been correctly placed in the “Entertainment” section.
  • “no picture available” — that might well be a good thing.
  • Under “Features”, it says ” See description for information.”; under “Description, it says “See features for information.”

Thanks to Alex Kadis for passing this along.  Er, so to speak.

Simplicity Where It Counts

Adam Bosworth recently gave a talk about simplicity in technology, and how it’s far more important to be simple and sloppy than complex and pure.  For the most part I agree with him; my first draft of XFN and FOAF was, basically, “FOAF is complicated.  XFN isn’t.”  While that was a flip way to amuse the reviewers, it also summarizes the core reason I took to XFN when Tantek and Matt explained it to me.  Making things easy is always preferable to making them hard.  As RFC 1925 so correctly states, “In protocol design, perfection has been reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

There are two places where I’d like to take issue with Adam, however.  (And I hope it’s not presumptuous of me to call him “Adam” instead of “Mr. Bosworth”.)

The first is the idea that the Web should never be more complicated than plain old HTML.  Adam says: “I very much doubt that an HTML that had initially shipped as a clean layered set of content (XML, Layout rules – XSLT, and Formatting- CSS) would have had anything like the explosive uptake.”  This is absolutely common sense.  I think it’s also common sense that any truly popular and useful system starts out basic—’primitive’, if you like—and grows in complexity.  The best such systems hide the complexity from the end user.  Automobiles have gone from a few very basic controls (steering, acceleration, braking) to the mobile gadget factories we pilot today.  I still don’t have to know how the engine works to drive one.

So I absolutely agree that HTML caught on because it was simple.  It had to be, because there was nothing to shield us from the system’s innards.  When the popular Web was getting started, I did my best to promote its use by writing a trilogy of HTML tutorials (1, 2, 3).  My entire goal there was to make it easier for anyone to publish their own content.  Want to publish your grandmother’s Apple Pan Dowdy recipe?  More pictures of pets?  Bring ‘em on!  They way I figured, if everyone published what they knew, the best information would slowly rise to the top by virtue of gathering more links.  Years later, Google built an empire around the concept of the best information being the most heavily linked.  Ah well, another fortune lost.

Even then, I did take the time to teach well-formed markup because I knew that malformed markup was likely to cause trouble.  This wasn’t an elitist thing, or some sort of far-reaching clairvoyance: at the time, it was possible to break browsers with incorrect nesting of inline elements.  So it only made sense to tell readers, “Hey, if you nest elements, make sure they actually nest instead of just closing them at random.  Otherwise your page might not get displayed.”  Eventually, browsers got more tolerant of sloppy markup, and those kinds of warnings weren’t really needed any longer.

So anyway, here we are ten-plus years later, and we’re still arguing about table layout and XHTML being lower-case and blah blah blah.  In the first place, table-driven layout isn’t simple.  It’s flexible and sloppy, but not simple.  The vast majority of table-layout authors have never touched a tag in their lives.  They’ve just told some tool “do this”, and it did it.  They don’t care how.  They shouldn’t have to care how.  So whether the tool generates 50KB of table-and-spacer markup, or 15KB of semantic markup with another 5KB of CSS, is wholly irrelevant to the user.  As it should be.

It is, however, relevant to those of us who ply the back end of the Web.  I’m not going to go over the arguments now; you probably know them, and know how you feel.  But my feeling has always been that once word processors stopped fighting over file formats, and got on to fighting over ease of use and features while all reading the same formats, that’s when word processing software took off.  I feel the same about the Web.

Now, I’m kind of a fan of CSS.  Have been for a while.  I like it because it lets the design (largely) happen away from the markup, where changes are easier, and it allows all kinds of stuff that HTML layout never managed.  (Two examples right off the top of my head: letter-spacing and border-style.)  I also like JavaScript and the DOM—not because they’re pure, but because they do what they need to do.  Inspired by the work of others, I put all those pieces together recently and created a lightweight slide show system.  It isn’t perfect, and because there are DOM actions it doesn’t always tolerate sloppiness, but it’s pretty simple.  Once editors exist to let people just point, click, and type slides (and I suspect that such editors may exist in the relatively near future), it will be even easier.  And the underlying format will not matter to 95% of its users.  Nor should it.

Anyway, this brings me round to the other thing I wanted to talk about.  Early in the talk, Adam says:

…in one of the unintended ironies of software history, HTML was intended to be used as a way to provide a truly malleable plastic layout language which never would be bound by 2 dimensional limitations, ironic because hordes of CSS fanatics have been trying to bind it with straight jackets ever since, bad mouthing tables and generations of tools have been layering pixel precise 2 dimensional layout on top of it.

First off, I think that Tim Berners-Lee might have a slightly different perspective on what HTML was intended to do, but let’s skip that.  The part I don’t get is the perception that “CSS fanatics have been trying to bind” HTML.  Personally, I’ve been trying to free Web design from the limitations it’s long experienced.  I’ve been working in that direction for years now.  I won’t argue that the job is finished: far from it.  But a big reason I’ve long been an advocate of using CSS is that it loosens the straightjacket, not tightens it.  The work I did within the context of the CSS Working Group was intended to loosen the bonds even further.

Maybe that means I don’t meet Adam’s definition of a “CSS fanatic”, I don’t know.  Maybe I’m not one of the “hordes” of jackbooted geeks, seeking to impose my tyrranical notions on the unwashed.  Either way, this does bring me to the question I want to ask:  where does this perception come from, that CSS is promoted a way to make the Web harder and HTML more difficult?  I’m not trying to belittle the idea by asking; I’m genuinely curious, and a little dismayed.  I know I’ve worked very hard to clearly describe what’s good and bad about CSS, just as I have about table-based design.  I’ve put a lot of effort into helping people who want to learn CSS do so, and explaining to those who ask why I think using CSS is a good idea.  Most of the other CSS advocates I know have done the same.  What is it that we did or didn’t do that got across this idea of inflexibility, or intolerance, or just plain elitism?

Because when you get right down to it, I’m still all in favor of people putting their stuff up for the world to see.  These days, I’m also in favor of making it easier for everyone else to see that stuff, and for tools to collect and analyze that stuff.  Standards make that easier—CSS makes that easier, although not as a standalone savior, but as part of a mosaic.  If someone as well-regarded and experienced as Adam Bosworth doesn’t see that, then I can’t help but feel there’s been a failure to communicate.

S5 1.1a5

Hey, we’re moving quickly: S5 1.1a5 is now up.  The current testbed file uses XHTML 1.0 Transitional, the better to accomodate the “allow external links to open in new window” feature I added with prompting from Peter Murray and assistance from Dave Marks.  I’m thinking about generalizing the routines to just mark any link that starts http://... as an external, window-spawning link, but that to me seems a little too intrusive.  I tend to think it’s better to let the author mark which links should spawn new windows, and which should not.  If I’m wrong, let me know.

Among other bug fixes: incremental slides now wind and unwind correctly, and don’t leave the last point on the slide stuck in the “current” state even when you loop through the slide show more than once.  The show/hide for the controls has a slightly different behavior now, so I’m looking for feedback there.

The last bug I want to squash before exiting the alpha stage is that in Safari, when you click on an “external” link, it still advances the slide show one step.  All other browsers I tested (IE/Win, Firefox) didn’t, as was the intent.  I can’t quite figure out how to fix Safari’s problem, which seems to center on the new hasValue() function.

(singing) Beta slide show, here we come…

Caption Hunt

Over the last two days, some… odd pictures of the President and his new appointees have made the rounds.  Here they are:

I could use some cheering up, so if you’d like to help out, write funny captions for one or both pictures.  Extra credit for captions that don’t make sex jokes.  (Anything really foul will be deleted.  You have been warned.)

For those who wish to contribute two captions, I think we’ll be daringly original and refer to the first picture (of Bush and Rice) as #1, and the second (of Bush and Spellings) as #2.  Got it?  Great.  Knock yourselves out.

S5 1.1a4

Hooray, we’re up to 1.1a4!  The only real change here is that I’ve added a “what do you want to hide, the controls or just the popup menu?” feature.  This is handled with the following meta element:

<meta name="controls" content="hide" />

That will hide all the controls.  The default behavior is “show”, which shows the controls but not the menu.  The testbed file is currently set to hide the controls by default.

Only here’s the problem: the modifications I made broke the system in IE/Win.  It returns the ever-so-helpful message “Unknown runtime error” and a line number that doesn’t seem to make any sense to me, so I’m not sure exactly what’s broken, nor why.  Assistance appreciated. Okay, that problem got fixed with a rename suggested by Michael Moncur.  The problem now is the control menu doesn’t appear when you mouse over the lower right corner, although the controls show up okay.  This may be my fault, but help in figuring out how to make IE/Win consistent with Safari and Firefox is needed.  Thanks. Those of you using Safari or Firefox will see things as intended, at least until the IE/Win thing is fixed.  I’m especially interested in feedback regarding how the controls reveal and hide themselves in the testbed presentation.

I suspect I’m getting close to the end of feature additions for v1.1; at this point, I’d like to clear up any lingering bugs, possibly rework how the default settings are represented in the meta elements (but not their intent), and write up a quick guide on creating and using themes.  I think that will be more than enough.  I don’t want to try to tack on too much at once with each revision.

Our Own John Peel

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of John Peel.  Part of this was due to my never having visited the United Kingdom (though I’ve flown over it a few times), and also to my only glancing familiarity with the “music scene” in general.  The news coverage that followed Peel’s sudden, unexpected death made me aware of both his existence and his love of music.  I felt as though news of a hidden treasure had been exposed for all the world to hear about, just when that unique voice had been forever silenced.

Now it’s my turn to do the same for the world.

This past Friday, the staff members at WRUW recieved word that Harold “Ayche” Freshour, host of “Demolished Sanctuary”, had died unexpectedly at the age of 41.  Harold was, in a lot of ways, our own John Peel.  He possessed an encyclopediac knowledge of music from all genres and periods.  It was very nearly impossible to reference a song that Harold had not heard.  He had his favorite classic groups, but he was also on constant lookout for interesting new artists.  A familiar face on the Cleveland punk scene, one of those guys everyone knew, he wrote a vast number of articles, reviews, and other pieces for music magazines.  It was fairly obvious from the first time I met him that Harold loved music to a degree that few people I’ve ever met could even begin to understand.  As an example of his vast musical knowledge, Harold covered my show a few times, and I heard from my listeners that he’d done a fine job.  Mine is not an easy show to cover—some weeks, I fail to do a good job.

Not only did Harold have that vast store of musical trivia in his head, but he was a truly a kind and wonderful man to boot.  He was forever filling in for other station members when they needed it, helping out around the station with cleaning or organizing, doing production work, and generally contrinbuting to WRUW with a smile.  He was always willing to listen and give advice when another person had a problem.  His was an even keel.

Harold was also deeply enigmatic.  Much of his life was compartmentalized, and many of the things I’ve mentioned in this etnry I have only learned in the days since he died.  I am certain that he touched and was an influence in other arenas, in ways we haven’t yet uncovered.  Perhaps we never will.  I suppose that we never really know how much a person changes the world during their life, but in Harold’s case there is an added layer of mystery.

These things will sort themselves out over time.  For now, I mourn the loss of a truly good man, and bring—though in many ways too late—news of him to the world.  In the end, it is the least I can do for him.

Rest well, Harold.

November 2004
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